Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Diversity Matters: Calling In or Calling Out?

Melissa Harris-Perry is the host of a TV talk show and a professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University. Her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, argues that persistent harmful stereotypes profoundly shape black women's politics, contribute to policies that treat them unfairly, and make it difficult for black women to assert their rights in the political arena. Harris-Perry is my go-to source of information on issues of intersectionality. I’m a dedicated viewer and a fan of her show.

Nicholas Kristof is a journalist, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. Along with his wife, Sheryl Wudunn, he is the author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. They write that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. Far from merely making moral appeals, the authors posit that it is impossible for countries to climb out of poverty if only a fraction of women participate in the labor force. I read Half the Sky from cover to cover, but I had to do it in small doses because it was quite depressing. I so admire Kristof and Wudunn for bringing these stories to light.

Harris-Perry often writes a letter of the week to a public figure on a matter of social injustice. They are often snarky, condescending . . . and well-deserved! Some examples are her letter to Nikki Haley about taking down the confederate flag in South Carolina; to Jeb Bush for choosing the same man who advised his brother on Iraq to be his foreign policy adviser; and to Sam Brownback on the effects of his tax policy on the poorest people in Kansas.

Imagine my angst when Harris-Perry’s letter of the week on Jan 25 was addressed to Nicholas Kristof. Oh no! Oh no! One person I admire was about to call out another person I admire. The letter addressed the problem of the ‘perfect victim.’ Kristof tweeted some advice, "Activists perhaps should have focused less on Michael Brown, more on shooting of 12-yr-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland." See my visible cringe! Hear my audible gasp! Here is a short sample from Harris-Perry's letter:

"It was a great reminder of how important it is to endure injustice until just the right victim comes along . . . After all, what’s nine months of injustice if it ensures you have just the right symbol for organizing? I presume that is the point of your tweet, Nick? To encourage activists to find palatable and pitiful victims so that skeptics will be forced to admit a wrong has been committed. After all, who can be sure that Michael Brown didn’t deserve to be shot – six times – while unarmed? Who can say for certain that it was a bad thing for his body to be left lying under a sweltering Missouri sun for four hours? Who has the right to label that a travesty? Apparently not a community of mostly black people whose schools remain effectively segregated, whose voices feel silenced, and who are policed by a department of mostly white officers. And clearly not the prosecutor or Grand Jury who refused to even bring the officer to trial for Brown’s death. And not the thousands of allies and organizers who stood in solidarity with the people of Ferguson for months."
I almost always agree with Harris-Perry, including here, but upon reflection, telling the personal story of one (practically) perfect victim of social injustice is precisely the journalistic method used so successfully by Kristof and Wudunn in Half the Sky. Here are a few examples:
Naeema Azar was disfigured and blinded when her husband threw acid on her. She has bravely spoken out against acid attacks, refusing to hide herself, and is working with the Progressive Women’s Association of Pakistan to end the ready sale of acid. Srey Rath was sold into sex slavery when she was a teenager in Cambodia. She eventually escaped from the brothel and, with assistance from an aid group, built a thriving retail business that supports her family. Mahabouba Muhammad was sold at age 13 to be the second wife of a 60-year-old man in Ethiopia. She became pregnant and suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. She was inspired by the doctor who cared for her and eventually became a doctor herself.
Before we make the connection back to astronomy, there is one more story we need to incorporate, that of Vivek Wadhwa. Wadhwa became the voice of women in tech. Here is a portion of the article:
"He is also a fixture on the lecture circuit and in the media, where he has frequently called on technology companies to address gender diversity. Men who would like to become allies in the fight for women’s equality in tech will find in this story a lesson on how to conduct themselves: Look at the way Mr. Wadhwa behaved when faced with criticism from female technologists. Then do the opposite. Women in tech criticized Mr. Wadhwa for clumsily articulating their cause. They said he was prone to outrageous gaffes, including once referring to women at tech companies as "token floozies," a phrase Mr. Wadhwa later blamed on his poor English. Critics also argued that Mr. Wadhwa’s message to women — that they should become more confident to survive in the tough world of tech — was outdated and could backfire on the women who followed it. And when he was called out on those points, Mr. Wadhwa, who conceded that he can be "a hothead," adopted a defensive — even wounded — tone on Twitter. He said he was under assault by "extremist feminists," claimed that he had "done more for the cause of women in tech than almost anyone," and frequently deflected criticism of his language by saying that he was an immigrant who did not understand web slang."


Now to astronomy: as a woman, I can use my life experience with gender discrimination to fight for gender equality. In fact all women in science can effectively support and advocate for women in science because they all have this first-hand personal experience. Other groups, say men in science, can also support and advocate for women in science, but since they don’t have this life experience, they need to rely more heavily on their connections with and advice from women. In fact, many of the men that I have had the opportunity to work with during my 10 years on CSWA have done this most effectively. Similarly, I can support and advocate for women of color in science, but I don’t have that life experience; I need to rely more heavily on my connections with and advice from women of color. I can also support and advocate for LGBT scientists, but I don’t have that life experience; I need to rely more heavily on my connections with and advice from LGBT scientists.

I struggled with how to complete this blog post until I read A Note on Call-Out Culture by Asam Ahmad in Briarpatch Magazine. Friends who read an early draft of this post warned me that I would take some heat for it, so may I request that before succumbing to the temptation to leave a negative comment, please (please!) read this powerful essay in its entirety. Here is just one paragraph:

Because call-outs tend to be public, they can enable a particularly armchair and academic brand of activism: one in which the act of calling out is seen as an end in itself. What makes call-out culture so toxic is not necessarily its frequency so much as the nature and performance of the call-out itself. Especially in online venues like Twitter and Facebook, calling someone out isn’t just a private interaction between two individuals: it’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are. Indeed, sometimes it can feel like the performance itself is more significant than the content of the call-out. This is why "calling in" has been proposed as an alternative to calling out: calling in means speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself.

How does one decide to call in or call out? Let’s use the examples of Kristof and Wadhwa: Kristof applied a well-tested journalistic vehicle to a potentially explosive situation in a rather ham-handed fashion. He should have known better. Wadhwa, on the other hand, may have started out with good intentions, but he crossed the line when the story became more about him than about the women he claimed to be supporting. If Harris-Perry had written her letter of the week to Wadhwa, I would have agreed that the call out was deserved. But it made me think twice when the target was Kristof. Ahmad’s essay articulated this difference in a way that I never could. Kristof seemed to be a candidate for calling in. Why? He has not only been an ally to women of color dealing with the most atrocious conditions around the world, but he has used his position of privilege to become an advocate for their causes. This does not in any way excuse his tweet, but as Ahmed warns, one wrong action should not become "a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being."

In advocating for underrepresented groups, we all make mistakes. I hope mine are more like Kristof’s and less like Wadhwa’s. I hope friends will call me in rather than call me out. I realize that I struggled to articulate this exact concept in response to a question from the audience after a seminar on Unconscious Bias at UT-Austin in April. I described my own practice of trying to create allies of senior white men in the battle for gender equality in astronomy. A mistake (perhaps unintentional, perhaps careless) gives me an opportunity to engage them in a dialogue – what was wrong, why it hurts, how to improve. Sometimes, the result is enlightenment!

These newly enlightened senior white men can make powerful allies. I would much rather they stand at my side, sharing the burden in the battle with the old curmudgeons, than lounge on the sidelines, leaving the fight to me alone. And allies, with a bit of knowledge, experience, and encouragement, can become advocates, and these are truly valuable.

In a world where there are 50 shades of mistakes, we need 50 ways to respond. Calling in gives us yet another arrow in our quiver as we strive to make science a true meritocracy.